Look, draw, be moved

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

“Now if you can draw a stone, everything within reach of art is also within yours.” John Ruskin, 1819 – 1900

Ruskin was explaining observation and how the act of looking is really all one needs to understand how to draw. Drawing, that much maligned skill which the contemporary art world gatekeepers feel is sad, tired, colonial and probably at this point racist and sexist is an activity that has been with us for tens of thousands of years. I think the earliest known drawings are 40,000 years old, but the medium could be much, much older. I am not very skilled at drawing and have avoided it for many years. Instead I’ve tuned my pickier brain skills onto technology, learning code, SEO and other endless machinations of Google and social media; at times it all seems for naught, as once you think you’ve mastered an idea, a module, plug in or program some software comes along and erases your skills set altogether.

And so, when I get particularly mired in how small I’ve made my universe – 19 inches to be exact, the size of my laptop screen, I tend to walk over to my studio and try to draw something. As kids my brother and I drew monsters and stories for each other. His were great, all fire, fangs and teeth – mine, well I constantly made mine cute, friendly and fun looking. I’ve always tried to find the best in things. His critique at age six was that I drew curvy lines – straight jagged lines were scarier. Why he is not the artist in my family is beyond me – he continues to be my best and most brilliant critic.
Drawing is a fantastic discipline. It makes you slow down, even if you draw quickly. You must observe, think, put line to paper, control your hands and, mix your intentions with actions in a way that gets somewhere – so that when you look back at your drawing you see something. A face. A house. A tree. A rock. It doesn’t matter really; all subject matter can make incredible drawings. It’s a fierce, personal and exciting act. I believe it also to be something we are inclined to do, not just as artists but just as humans. We are inclined to draw the world around us.

Wild rose running in a cleft of Derbyshire limestone by John Ruskin. From the site Ashmolean, the Elements of Drawing, Oxford U.

I’ve found that drawing is something a lot of us share. I can’t count the times I’ve entered someone’s home and found that they too have done masterful little ink/water colour drawings that are secretly but in full view on their walls. “You did this?” I ask like some idiot pretending not to be one. “Yes” is usually the answer along with a brief explanation said to the floor and not me about how they were just having fun. Almost all these people are better than me at drawing. It’s humbling to say the least. And it gives credence to that axiom about how talent isn’t all you need to persevere as an artist. Most of the time you just need perseverance.

Ruskin was himself an amateur at drawing, but his work is truly lovely and revelatory. For his observance of things like lichen, rock faces, tree bark are all so astoundingly detailed without the intense scrutiny of scientific examination; they are intense from his passion for them. Pouring passion into drawing is something I’ve come to realize can be a salve. Especially today in a world wired for fake – drawing is real.

For fun go outside and get a plant, flower or rock from your backyard. Put it on the table. Get a sharpened pencil, an eraser and some nice white paper. Draw the thing. Keep drawing until you get what you want. Draw slowly or quickly, draw in big sloppy loops or tight little lines, draw toward the thing that you see, those ineffable borders of life that shape us, keep us in some kind of assembly and see what you have when you stop. Every drawing is a bit of information that keeps us who we are – lost mammals scratching on cave walls.

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Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Years ago in Ontario we ushered in a new conservative provincial government who brought with them something called the “Common Sense” revolution. As I was young and lived a fairly unstable lifestyle I noticed this government’s action’s consequences over time – the most damaging of which have never been resolved. Almost half my friends in my art community quit or took teaching jobs. The rest of us struggled on. Some moved away from a city like I did. Some left the country.

In the years following many of us tried to figure out how best to live our lives under a new paradigm where we all had to become art-terpreneurs, use small business as a winning example of how to be an artist (“you make product don’t you?” I was told) and be shoved through the degrading vortex of Richard Florida’s “creative cluster” zeitgeist. We were held up as an example of how to gentrify our city’s neighbourhoods and told over and over and over how much money the arts contributed to the overall economy. We were an economic engine! Oh goody, I even used the phrase myself.

Our recent exhibition in Toronto. Here is where we engage with what I am going to start calling ‘defiant beauty’.

Meanwhile in my universe incomes plummeted. And lots of peers scrambled back into academia where the thought was that at least there would be steady income. Now the art world runs on academic fumes; art galleries have given over to DJs & nightclubs, and the contemporary work being made seems to be about tech or a sociological context in which talk, consensus, convergence, conversation, and more talk seems to loom larger than anything hanging on a wall or sitting in the middle of a gallery. Language and ideas reign in the new contemporary field. For the rest of us not welcome in this new world order – we just tried to hang onto our studios and hoped for the best.

What we should have all been doing is safeguarding our art worlds against the tyranny of ideologues. We should have been shoring up public support and public money (not grant and council money but actual private sector money in the form of people purchasing art). We should have spent our time not aggressively making our supporters test themselves against a changing world – we should have spent our time reassuring them about art and its importance. We should have spent our time creating more art supporters not more artists.

Ahh but I learned in therapy not to ‘should’ people. As a community the arts in Canada has always worked in an uneasy balance between socialized ideals and nurturing millionaire art stars. I think however things began to get a bit lopsided when the Chair of the Canada Council started calling themselves a CEO. Remember when being a CEO was cool and now it’s public enemy #1? That didn’t take long.

But where to go from here? In Ontario we are now on the verge of a new “common sense” revolution in the form of a new conservative government, although their motto now is “Poor? Get a job.” Their transparent love of hate seems to be a selling point. Yes, and that is where we are in civilization, being run to a certain extent by people who think compassion, justice, fairness is all part of some liberal conspiracy to make everyone gay. And there are Nazis again now too.

Art now for who or what? I guess most of us have just reconciled ourselves with the fact that we will not be saved. We must survive. What gives me hope is the fact that many of my peers who have just steadily continued to work at what they do have gotten very, very good. This may be an epoch of ‘defiant beauty’ – I can only speak for painting at this point. All this “the world is ending, the world is ending” isn’t really having a negative impact on the work. And it never did.

I think the artists who just enjoy their work, make it regularly and do their best to get it out there for people to see are real leaders in this cultural climate. The hope is in the art – it always has been, it always will be.

#art #digital #social media #Ontario #ruralness